Why do we feel defensive in relationships?

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I recently read a blog entitled “Five things no one ever told me would destroy my marriage”. The author cited “being defensive” as one such reason. However, defensiveness is complex – let’s shed some light on why we can become defensive and what we can do about it.

I want to reassure you that all of us react defensively at times. We are told ‘not’ to be defensive but it’s not that easy!

Emotional Triggers & Accusations:

I can’t say enough about the importance of knowing your emotional triggers. What is an emotional trigger? Read about it here! There will be times when we react defensively because our partner unknowingly trips into a painful emotional trigger. If you have a shame trigger – reacting defensively is your immediate reaction to protect yourself from feeling shame. All of us have triggers and most of us have many of them.

For example, my client (who was bullied as a child) told me that his wife was bullying him in an argument. When I asked him, “Is she a bully?” he replied “No”. The issue was that when she expressed herself – he felt bullied. And when his wife unknowingly tripped into his emotional trigger, he reacted defensively. His work is to recognize that he did this because he was reacting to his emotional trigger, re-living the hurt from the original situation in his childhood. We react defensively to our triggers because they stir up painful emotions that we don’t want to remember or feel.

HOWEVER, his wife, who just thought she was expressing her feelings, wasn’t aware that she was not really doing so. And there is a good reason for this –

“When we FEEL strong emotions we think we are expressing our emotions”

Here’s the thing – all too often we think we are expressing our emotions when in reality we are making accusations. Let me explain!

We might say to our partner:

“You have not been affectionate lately”

“You are so busy with work and you don’t care about me”

“We don’t spend any time together because you don’t love me like you did in the past”

The challenge is that these statements are expressed from intense emotions. Emotions felt are loneliness, feeling unloved, longing, and fear. The intensity of our emotions felt deep inside us is behind the words we use. However, the statements in my example are accusations and most people react defensively when on the receiving end of an accusation.

Expressing emotions would look like this:

“I miss your touch and that hurts me”

“I feel uncared for when you are so busy at work”

“I feel unloved and miss you”

Why does expressing emotion create a bigger challenge for us? The expression of emotions requires vulnerability. It’s far easier to make the accusation, “You have not been affectionate lately” because if your partner reacts defensively it hurts less than when you express your pain from a place of vulnerability such as “I know you’ve been working hard, I miss your affection and that hurts me”. If your partner responds with “Well, you haven’t been enjoyable to be with lately”, while it still hurts, it hurts less when we are in an accusatory posture as opposed to a vulnerable one.

What to do:

It is challenging to know how to approach our partner when we have concerns or hurts that we want to address with them. I have experienced many times in my relationship feeling fairly confident that I had given much thought and consideration about how I would approach my husband to ensure he would be receptive and open to my concerns. Well let me just say – it’s hard when good intentions fall flat!

That being said, it is important that we continue to give consideration to how we approach our partner. We don’t always know when we will bump into an emotional trigger or something else.

Ask yourself “what is it that I want my partner to hear when I approach him or her with my concerns?” If your partner reacts defensively – ask them what they heard. If they heard something different from what you intended – clarify your intention and meaning in what you are communicating. In the example that I gave – my client heard that he is a terrible person and husband. This is not even close to what his wife wanted to communicate to him. She was trying to communicate that she missed him!

It is equally important to maintain awareness when your partner approaches you with concerns, hurts, complaints and/or criticisms. If your partner approaches you from the stance of making accusations – you can share with your partner that is hard to hear his or her concerns when you are on the receiving end of an accusation.

And here’s the thing – when we accuse – you can almost always count on you or your partner reacting defensively. What else can one do but defend an accusation? What you really need is validation, empathy and compassion. You have an increased chance of receiving what you need when you express your feelings. And I say ‘increased chance’ because we can’t always predict our partner’s reaction to us. However, you can feel confident in knowing that you approached your partner in the best possible way. It is then up to your partner to reflect on their reaction to understand it.

I would also suggest that if you have a criticism that you want to approach your partner with – ask if this is a good time, if not, when is a better time?

If your partner reacts with defensiveness and anger, suggest you both take some time to process what just happened. Sometimes we don’t know how to respond – we don’t have the words – and it’s easier to be defensive. When on the receiving end of a complaint or a concern, we feel first and think second. It’s challenging to process our emotions in the face of even the smallest of perceived criticisms – such as my client hearing he was bad husband and a horrible person.

As you can see, defensiveness is complicated. However, with awareness, communication tools, understanding toward ourselves and our partner – it can be a bit less challenging whether you are on the receiving end of defensiveness or you find yourself feeling defensive. As always, all of our relationship work needs to be done with self-compassion and give yourself credit for doing this work!

In my next blog, I will discuss the difference between defending and defensiveness! It’s important to know why and how they differ. Stay tuned!!

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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!

And you can keep up with my writing on relationships, random thoughts and more by subscribing here.

One more thing… I really would love for you to share your thoughts with me. It’s not easy to do, I understand because it took me a long time to work up the courage to begin blogging! But I want to get to know you. When you feel ready, please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section. And, if you would like me to blog about a specific topic – let me know! 

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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.

Photo Credit: Eflon@flicker.com

Why do we feel defensive in relationships?
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Why do we feel defensive in relationships?
A blogger cited “being defensive” as one such reason. However, defensiveness is complex – let’s shed some light on why we react defensively and what we can do about it.

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